Tag Archives: creative writing

5 Things I Relearned Starting a New Book

Poor little car loaded with baggage on a tangled highway, like a writer starting a new book!

The right turn has to be here somewhere!

It’s been a while since I started a book from scratch.

One of my two latest ventures is the third volume in a mystery series I’ve been working on for some time. But the other is new—premise to hand-written scribbles to first keyboarding. I’m about 15,000 words in. And it’s taking off.

By taking off, I mean every time I finish a scene, the next one’s shaping up in my mind. I’m excited about sitting down to the draft every day. Zoooom.

Both of these plunges into new writing confirmed a few things I thought I remembered about starting a book. Other writers might find these experiences resonating with theirs.

Here’s what I know.

1) You must WRITE.

A lot of people advocate detailed outlines, but if the outline isn’t coming or not a natural move for you (I’m a pantser), I argue that you need only one element of your new book before you start putting words on a page: an idea. Something that’s been kicking at the edges of your mind to get out. You can carry this idea around, stroke it, dunk it in your morning coffee . . . but to give it body and breath, you must start to write. Writing teachers share an adage most credibly attributed to Flannery O’Connor: “I don’t know what I think until I read what I wrote.” For reasons beyond my pay grade, the physical and mental process of actually writing triggers something that no other process can.

A writer with light bulbs overhead--and one going off!

2) Accept your “shitty first drafts.”

Listen to Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird. I have to remind myself of this every day. This tolerance for failure applies both to the whole novel and to those early “thinking” notes and stabs at dialogue or description. Not a word you write at this stage has to be good enough to go on the finished page. A lot of it is for you to know but never tell your readers (e.g., that your MC loved runny eggs when he was eight). You’re world-building, poking into corners you didn’t know were there. You’ll leave a lot of what you find behind, but it’s the finding that makes your world come alive.

A weird, writer-built world!

3) Set doable goals.

As much as I love writing, I personally do NOT need disincentives to do it. Nothing disincentivizes as much as feeling that I MUST complete a whole chapter at a sitting. People have different tricks to fend off procrastination. Sometimes I commit to filling a single notebook page. Or I set a timer for thirty minutes. During that thirty minutes, I must focus on the book. I’m allowed to reread the last session’s work or play with plot points, but before that timer goes off I must write something. Usually, when I stop, my mind’s at work, words still packed inside my pen for next time.

 

4) Allow incubation time.

This point goes with #3 above. Short sessions over the course of a day or a few days leave blank spaces in between for amazing things to happen. That perfect word you couldn’t find, that twist in a planned scene where your characters surprise you, that metaphor you just couldn’t sort out—when you come back from doing other things, they just fall onto the page. Don’t try to force this. Incubation is a mysterious process. Actually writing (see #1) gives it a place to do its thing.

A mysterious scene of ruined stone piers stretching into a foggy sea.

5) If a scene tells you it’s not working, listen.

Inevitable! Here are some strategies that have worked for me when a scene freezes up:

  • Make sure you’re writing a real scene. If you’re just lecturing your readers on a bunch of stuff you think they ought to know, you can get just as sick of the droning as they will. To get your blood rushing, toss your characters in a pile and let them thrash around.
  • Write sticky scenes or passages from multiple viewpoints or in multiple voices, just to see what happens—you’re not stuck with the fails. In my new book, I’d struggled to fire it up, but then, without warning (see #4), up popped a different voice, and the character who’d been stumble-tongued suddenly started talking. The whole book began to spread itself before me, just from that discovered voice.
  • Start at a different place in your story. Maybe you’re trying to pile up too much backstory rather than getting on with the chase. Or use the common device of starting at a crucial moment, then returning to the past to tell readers how your folks got themselves into this mess.
  • Start with conflict, not crisis. (This is the single best piece of fiction-writing advice I ever received.) Okay, your characters are about to go over a 100-foot waterfall in a leaky barrel. But once they hit the rocks below, you still have to figure out who the survivors are and what their story they’re living, and that’s where the work is. Jump-start with their argument the day before about why they’re doing it, whether they’re doing it right, and whether they should do it at all. Their answers to those questions are the story, and the waterfall is just a device to slam them into their reasons for answering those questions the way they did.

A beautiful Florida river

I used to compare starting a book to finding my way into the center of one of those Florida cypress stands I liked to explore: you try what looks like a path, only to find your way blocked; you try another, ditto. Then, abruptly, the trees part before you, and you’re at the secret heart. The innards of a new book can just as hard to push into. It was nice to find these strategies working to clear the path once again.

What works for you when you’re starting a new book?

 

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“Ah, That Was Easy!” — A Quick, Simple Trick to Make Your Quotes Stand Out – by Anastasia Chipelski…

Here’s a thoughtful discussion of an issue that confounds a lot of us: how to add “attribution” to quotations and dialogue. In other words, how to clarify who said what.
Fiction writers, I know, sometimes feel hemmed in by admonitions to stick with simple “says” and “said.” Anastasia Chipelski shares some thoughts on how to handle nonfiction attributions. Fiction writers can remember to use “action beats” to escape ponderous repetition of “said.”
“I’ll try to answer your questions.” Derek shifted in his chair. “If they’re not too hard.”
And exchanges between two people won’t need an attribution on every line.

On my other blog, collegecompositionweekly.com, I summarize articles from research journals. One rule I follow is always to attribute claims to the source, which prevents me from implicitly endorsing them as truth. So I rely on “argues,” “claims,” “contends,” etc. Sometimes I fall back on “writes” or “states,” which leave the claim in the source’s corner when he or she does seem to be offering a verifiable fact.

These decisions always take a lot of thought. I personally think colorful attributions should be used sparingly. Let the dialogue and the action do most of the work. Thanks to the Story Reading Ape, as always, for sharing a useful piece!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on The Write Life:

As an editor, one of the first pieces of feedback I give to writers is to vary word choice and sentence structure. But there’s one place where I go in the complete opposite direction: quote attribution.

When I started managing a local alt-weekly five years ago, I inherited their style guide. I could change it, but I decided to give it a little test drive first.

A simple “subject says” is the best format for quote attribution

That style guide recommended that writers almost exclusively use a simple “subject says” format to attribute quotes. I bristled a little. Taking all the wonderful varied ways to frame a quote and jettisoning them in favor of “says” felt wrong, sparse and cold.

But …

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How to add categories to your book on Amazon

Big word "book" in "letterpress."

Wow! I’ve been waiting for this information for ages. Join me in trying it, and let me know how it works for you!

deborahjay

Have you ever noticed that some books seem to be in lots of Amazon categories, and not just the two KDP allows you to choose when you publish your book?

Did you know you can add your book to more categories simply by contacting KDP support? You can have it in up to 10 categories, making it much more likely people will come across it when they search their Amazon site.

But why would I want my book in more categories?

Put simply, the more categories your book shows up in, the more people will see your book on Amazon.

Your book will show up in every step of the category pathway, for example, if one category path for your book is:

Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks>Science Fiction and Fantasy>Fantasy>Action & Adventure

your book will show up in each of the categories mentioned. Ideally, you want your book to…

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Filed under Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, business of writing, ebooks publishing and selling, genres for writers, indie publishing, Marketing books, Publishing, Self-publishing, Tech tips for writers, writing novels

More Ways for Authors to Get Scammed

Watch out for literary crocodiles!

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Victoria Strauss at Writer Beware continues to let us know when new scams proliferate—in this case, crooks pretending to be literary agents who just LOVE our books! I have actually talked to people who take such come-ons seriously.

Check out the examples and the advice for recognizing these criminals.

These scams are dead ends! Dead end sign!

Photo by Dustin Tray on Pexels.com

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Filed under business of writing, Finding literary agents for writers, Money issues for writers, Myths and Truths for writers, writing novels, writing scams

The 9 Most Common Mistakes I See on Opening Pages

Here’s a great new discovery: Annie Bomke. This post lays out almost every first-page show-stopper I’ve heard agents mention at conferences. “Over-narrating” is a trait I constantly have to work on. See if something here resonates with you!

Annie Bomke Literary Agency

A while ago when I solicited advice on what topics to cover in my blogs, someone asked me to cover common mistakes I see authors making in their first pages, so here is my rough list.

One quick note before I start the list, just to give you an idea of my mindset going into a manuscript. When I read a submission, I don’t ask myself: “Is this a good book?” or “Is this person a good writer?” I ask: “Am I interested in reading more?” There’s no such thing as an objectively good book, because reading is a subjective experience, so I don’t attempt to judge what’s “good.” All I’m looking for is a desire to read more. If I don’t feel compelled to read more, I stop reading.

So without further ado, here are the most common reasons I stop reading:

No Sense of POV
There’s a description…

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Filed under Editing your novel, Finding literary agents for writers, Learning to write, looking for literary editors and publishers, self editing for fiction writers, writing novels

The Complete Guide to Query Letters – by Jane Friedman…

Here’s an example of why Jane Friedman ranks as an incredible resource!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

The query letter has one purpose, and one purpose only: to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work. The query letter is so much of a sales piece that it’s quite possible to write one without having written a word of the manuscript. All it requires is a firm grasp of your story premise.

For some writers, the query will represent a completely different way of thinking about their book—because it means thinking about one’s work as a product to be sold. It helps to have some distance from your work to see its salable qualities.

This post focuses on query letters for novels, although the same advice applies to memoirists, because both novelists and memoirists are selling a story.

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How to Query–and More

My last writers’ group meeting included a long discussion about the book market triggered by an article from Vox that one of my colleagues had brought in. The discussion branched off into familiar territory for aspiring authors: how to get published.

Books leading to a door in a brick wall

I often feel like a Grinch when I respond to these discussions and questions by saying, “Go online. Google ‘How to.’ There are many wonderful people out there providing solid advice and authoritative, expert guidelines.” Yes, there are also scammers, but if you follow the admonition not to pay anyone anything until you have investigated a wide range of options—and to take the same basic precautions you’d take buying any product—you won’t fall into any serious traps.

My point is often that a thirty-minute conversation can’t cover nearly enough ground to do more than point a new author in the right direction. In these groups, I recommend specific sources for follow up, such as Jane Friedman or Victoria Strauss or, for formatting issues as well as other self-publishing help, The Book Designer. For those convinced that formatting their own e-book is an overwhelming challenge, I recommend Smashwords and Mark Coker’s free e-book formating guide, as well as his list of formatters and cover designers.

book with butterflies taking flight from its pages

Sites like these include links to dozens of helpful articles. Obviously, there are many others; these are just the ones that pop into my head on short notice, because they’re stellar.

Today, my feed included a post from yet another site just brimming with the kind of information the people in my group were craving: Anne R. Allen’s Blog . . . with Ruth Harris. So I’m linking here with advice to anyone starting out on this journey: Once you’ve read Anne R. Allen’s clear, direct instructions on how to write a professional query, browse the site. Click on the links. Subscribe.

I found sources like these the way I suspect anyone builds a personal knowledge base, by clicking on intriguing articles and subscribing to bloggers whose advice seemed relevant to my goals. Compilers like Chris the Story Reading Ape have also given me lots of trails to follow.

Comment and turn all of us on to your favorites. To whom do you go for expert advice on the many aspects of publishing, both traditional and indie? I am always up for learning more!

question mark adorned with flowers

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Mea Culpa: Ableism and Handwritten Drafts

Mysterious park alleyShortly after my post on the joys and advantages of drafting by hand for writers, I began reading an article by Lauren E. Obermark in the November College English, a major journal for teachers of college writing. Obemark examines the environment of graduate studies in English through the lens of disability studies. Fortunately, you can read this article if you find it interesting; it’s available free at https://library.ncte.org/journals/ce/issues/v82-2

I read this article so that I could summarize it for my other blog, CollegeCompositionWeekly. I have not begun the summary yet, as this is a long, complex piece that will take me several passes to capture within my usual constraint of roughly 1000 words. But Obermark’s report on her survey of graduate students opened my eyes to a sin of omission in my cheerful post on handwritten drafts.

red yellow and orange flower fieldI wrote the post because, every time I draft, I appreciate how well drafting by hand works—for me. Obermark made me realize how easily even well-meaning positions can overlook the fact that the conditions I take for granted do not describe reality for everyone. That this caveat did not even occur to me opens my eyes to my own unquestioned assumptions about writing and literacy—to the limitations of my own definition of “literate practices.” Here are some of the really obvious realizations the article provoked:

  • Handwriting (and, for that matter, keyboarding) requires “sight-work” that, for many, may not be worth the effort or even doable.
  • Handwriting requires comfort holding a writing instrument, like a pen, and keyboarding requires comfort with the physical demands of typing.
  • Handwriting requires a steadiness in movement that not all of us may be graced with.

What have I missed? Many things, I’m sure.

men silhouette in the fog

I still would argue that for those who find handwriting and keyboarding comfortable, drafting by hand is a productive option worth experimenting with. But this article, and my belated grasp of how I fell so easily into that uninformed majority who think that what is normal for me is normal for all, have led me to wonder: writers need methods of drafting and converting their drafts to submittable texts. Which methods would writers who differ in their ableness from me recommend for capturing creativity and flexibility?

What do you use? Please share.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Small Riff on Handwritten Drafts

Pen and notebook: The tools for writing by hand.

This morning I was reading an article for my other blog, College Composition Weekly, where I summarize selected articles from the scholarly journals on teaching writing (if you teach writing, check  out my archives). This sentence caught my eye:

In fact, [Maryanne] Wolf advocates that students write by hand, which “encourages them to explore their own thoughts at closer to a snail’s pace than a hare’s” . . . which can only help them think more deeply about the texts they both write and read.*

This claim resonates because I always compose my fiction and my own research articles in longhand and have advocated, including as a writing teacher, for this practice.

Why?

The simplest reason is that writing in longhand gives you an extra edit. Keyboarding makes you scrutinize all that text you have to transfer and, in my experience, encourages sharpening as well as re-evaluating structure. You’d be amazed at what you suddenly don’t need when you have to go to the trouble to type it all in.

But there are other reasons. I owe the next two points to an essay from the late 1970s, Janet Emig’s “Writing as a Mode of Learning.” I used to walk my students through an outline of this piece in an effort to persuade them of the value of writing not just to recall but to engage with their reading in all their classes. Two of Emig’s points are especially salient here:

  • Writing is a bodily activity. It doesn’t just happen in the mind.

Emig argues that humans learn better and make better connections when the body echoes what the mind is doing. That’s one reason you remember points better if you rehearse them aloud to yourself.

True, typing is also bodily, but handwriting magnifies the bodily engagement. I remember writing in high school with cartridge pens and just loving the process of shaping the black-ink letters on the white page. A written sentence was almost like a painting, merging visual, palpable, and mental into one.

  • Writing slows down thought; slower thought allows new connections and ideas to bubble up.

I’ve become deeply appreciative of my subconscious. Of how, even in the few instances when I’m white-hot and pouring out text, it’s in the middle of one sentence that the next few start to bloom, as do memories of how this sentence ties to sentences I wrote pages before. Typing can work this way, too, but the extra time to lay out the hand-shaped words allows more of that latent understanding to find its way into the light.

Other advantages of writing by hand

  • Margins! They’re repositories for all those adjunct thoughts that pop up, as well as for brainstorming word choices or for trailing revisions up the side and across the top with arrows showing the way. The Word comment function just doesn’t provide this same looseness, this same ability to explore all the relationships among ideas and sentences. I star things, circle things, even draw pictures. A handwritten page is a landscape, not a Lego tower.
  • A handwritten draft is a real draft! Its impermanence invites the scribbling that calls out inspiration. It never says, “There, finished,” which word-processed pages want to say even when we know they’re wrong.

Of course, my sense that handwriting is better is more a matter of my personal preference than a provable claim. I’m writing this on the screen, will edit it on the screen, as I do most of my blog posts. And these days, I risk not being able to decipher my handwriting if I wait too long to come back.

All the same, if I get stuck when I’m writing, I pick up the pen and the notebook and head for a comfortable chair to recover the slow, free sense of living words that writing in longhand offers. The words just loosen up there.

*Smith, Cheryl Hogue. “”Fractured Reading: Experiencing Students’ Thinking Habits.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 47/1 (2019): 22-35.

 

 

 

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Is A Split Infinitive Still A Grammar Mistake In Writing? – by Derek Haines…

Hear, hear. One of the silliest rules people pass around. I particularly like the way Derek’s examples show how moving the adverb around changes meaning.

I’d add two points. One, “to boldly go” sounds so right because it’s iambic pentameter, one of the most natural rhythms for spoken English (Shakespeare’s meter).

Second, many “rules” like this evolved because 17th- and 18th-century pedants wanted to “improve” English by making it behave like Latin–ignoring the fact that English falls into an entirely different class of language than Latin. But hey, if Latin (one-word) infinitives can’t be split, we shouldn’t split English infinitives, either, even if they are two words.

Thanks to the Story Reading Ape for sharing this useful post!

Chris The Story Reading Ape's Blog

on Just Publishing Advice:

Almost every style guide will tell you should avoid the split infinitive.

But is this generalised rule always valid?

We all know the famous Star Trek example of breaking the rule: to boldly go where no man has gone before.

It would sound awkward if I applied good English grammar. My grammar checker correction says it should read: to go where no man has gone before boldly.

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